Sunday mornings, folks camp outside Rick & Ann's like NPR addicts trying to get into a David Sedaris reading: doggedly, brimming with brittle good nature. On one Thursday night in early February, the walk-ins also waited to be seated, not for brunch, but dinner. And thanks to a few glasses of wine, the restaurant's waiting room didn't crackle with the same subverted impatience.
Several weeks ago, I set out to see if I could skip the hourlong wait for eggs by eating Saturday morning brunch at three-star bistros. This week, I flipped the question: Could I get a good dinner at a restaurant known mainly for brunch?
Both Rick & Ann's, in the shadow of Berkeley's Claremont resort, and Blackberry Bistro, up in Oakland's Glenview district, have won Express Best Of honors for their brunches, and deservedly so. But what makes for a good brunch -- an easy atmosphere, hearty fare that's simple but not dumb -- doesn't always succeed in the entrée hours.
For the restaurant that does it right, brunch is, of course, a moneymaker. There's gold in them thar yolks: You charge $9 for an omelet with peppers, onions, and cheese, with a side of hash browns and some toast. At wholesale prices, your food costs top out at $1.50, or 17 percent, about half the percentage a bistro sweats blood to achieve. Breakfast-lunch restaurants also give their owners a seminormal schedule. But prestige, of course, belongs to dinner.
Rick and Ann Lauer have been supplementing their restaurant's daily breakfasts and lunches with limited dinner hours for years. Evening meals follow the same format as the daytime -- American comfort food, which means anything from pot roast to seared tuna over sushi rice with wasabi mayonnaise. The cozy restaurant can seem like a WASP preserve, with its Cape Cod color scheme, gingham tablecloths, and down-from-the-hills crowd. But the everyday, stick-to-the-basics menu appeals to a broader swath of humanity. It aims to be a nice place to take the whole family for dinner, a dependable, reasonably priced spot where you can catch up with old friends over meatloaf and Merlot.
Except my meal there wasn't so dependable, and I got several hints that the restaurant was coasting on its reputation. Our waiter delivered the plates and removed the plates, smiling distractedly, and that seemed to be the extent of his commitment. The regular menu gives vegetarians a number of choices, including one of the weekly specials, but our buckwheat linguine with fried-tofu nuggets and a miso sauce tasted like a half-hearted concession to the meatless. The mound of potatoes accompanying a slab of grilled meatloaf -- which was just fine, in the way that some guys are just nice -- wasn't mashed with enough butter or cream, leaving it with the grainy, Spartan taste of good intentions.
That said, the rest of the meal performed as intended, from a spinach salad livened up by silky, tart, wine-marinated onions and crisp apples to a bowl of rich vegetarian chili whose smoky chipotle heat crescendoed slowly, and peaked just before it stung. The chicken-vegetable stew in Rick & Ann's signature chicken pot pie was as light as it was flavorful, covered by a flaky biscuit sheet with a heart-shaped vent cut into it. And meals there end just the way God intended them to: with pie.
Moving south, Oakland's hidden-away Glenview neighborhood has been mourning the loss of the Purple Plum since the "California soul food" restaurant shut down last year and turned Thai. But Robert Dorsey, chef and owner of the three-year-old Blackberry Bistro several doors down, stepped into the gap when he began Friday night dinners in November (aside: Sherrie Sparks, one of Purple Plum's former co-owners, is a partner). Three months in, Friday nights still feel like a neighborhood secret, yet Blackberry Bistro is drawing a good crowd, largely locals on couples-dates with their neighbors and parents treating their kids to burgers while they relish adult-friendly foods like polenta and kale. The vibrant salmon walls and dark-blue tables translate well enough in the dinner hours, and the servers handle the shift from hash browns to three-course meals even more smoothly.
Wisely, Dorsey doesn't overdo his dinner foray. He keeps the menu small and manageable, with five or six entrées that change every week. Just like breakfast, his big-hearted food is anchored in the American South and Northern California -- he buys a portion of his weekly produce from the Mandela Farmers' Market in West Oakland -- but doesn't limit itself to those regions, as Dorsey's chow mein appetizer one night announced. The thick wheat noodles stir-fried with green onions and a couple of prawns in a soy-based glaze proved a tad sweet for my tastes but didn't stop my tablemates from slurping up every last strand.
A salad of beets, baby spinach, navel and cara cara oranges, and dabs of goat cheese exemplified his food at its best: Casually arranged on the plate but precisely calibrated on the palate, all those brassy flavors held in harmony.
Like Rick & Ann's, the entrées included a vegetarian option, ours a delicate coaster-sized cheese ravioli, napped in a light tomato sauce with whole basil leaves, sautéed portobello slices, and a fine layer of Parmesan. A mammoth grilled pork chop retained its pink from core to crust, and came propped up on a big scoop of polenta mixed with braised greens, earthy and comforting, and a slightly overreduced fig-wine sauce. I was hoping Blackberry Bistro's fried chicken would be as good as the Purple Plum's, but its crust just didn't crisp up right, while the cornmeal muffin alongside had the opposite problem. A big cube of bread pudding put things to rights. Rewarmed in the oven, its corners crackled under the fork, yet the insides remained custardy, with chunks of banana melting into every nook.
It can't be easy to switch gears for just one night a week, and I suspect that any unevenness at Blackberry Bistro will fade as the staff hits its stride. Dorsey, like the Lauers, has already succeeded at bringing to dinner the comfortable neighborhood vibe he's perfected at breakfast and lunch. And you don't even need reservations.
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